Reporter Joseph Person grades the Carolina Panthers’ performance against the Vikings.
D QUARTERBACK: Cam Newton struggled again, completing just more than 50 percent of his passes and finishing with a passer rating (65.7) lower than his career average of 85 for the sixth game in a row. Newton set a dubious mark in the fourth quarter when he threw an interception for the eighth consecutive game, a team record.
B RUNNING BACKS: Coach Ron Rivera continued to start DeAngelo Williams, even though it’s clear Jonathan Stewart is the better back. Stewart rushed 12 times for 85 yards, his most since an 88-yard game against Tampa Bay on Dec. 24, 2011. Rivera might not have a choice but to start Stewart against New Orleans after Williams hurt his right hand in the second half.
C RECEIVERS: Tight end Greg Olsen led the Panthers with five catches for 59 yards, with four of those receptions coming in the second half. Kelvin Benjamin added five catches for 56 yards on 12 targets, and Philly Brown had his second scoring catch in as many games. None of the other wideouts was a factor.
B- OFFENSIVE LINE: The Panthers started their sixth line combination in the past six games, with Mike Remmers taking over for injured Nate Chandler at right tackle. The line had a good day run-blocking but wasn’t as sound with its pass protection. Newton was sacked four times, although two came in the fourth quarter when the Panthers were throwing nearly every play.
B- DEFENSIVE LINE: End Charles Johnson had four tackles and the only sack by a defensive lineman. Johnson forced a fumble on his sack, although rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater recovered it. Rookie end Kony Ealy got reps ahead of Wes Horton and Mario Addison during parts of the second half, and nearly got to Bridgewater on a play when Luke Kuechly sacked him.
A LINEBACKERS: Kuechly finished with a career-high two sacks and led the Panthers with nine tackles. Outside linebacker Thomas Davis had another strong game with seven stops, including one for loss. Davis, one of the team’s captains and emotional leaders, was not happy after the game, declining to comment as he left the locker room.
C- DEFENSIVE BACKS: Free safety Thomas DeCoud bit hard on a play fake on the Vikings’ first touchdown – a 4-yard catch by tight end Kyle Rudolph. DeCoud said the Panthers were in man coverage, and he indicated Rudolph wasn’t his man. Rookie Tre Boston replaced DeCoud at the start of the next series. Cornerback Josh Norman had four tackles and a pass breakup, but his taunting penalty fueled a Vikings touchdown drive at the end of the first half.
F SPECIAL TEAMS: The Panthers inexplicably allowed the Vikings to block two punts for touchdowns, just the fifth time that has happened in a game in NFL history. Rivera blamed the blocks on individual breakdowns, although special teams coordinator Richard Rodgers could be on the hot seat. Even when Brad Nortman got punts off, the coverage was poor. Marcus Sherels had returns of 26 and 19 yards.
F COACHING: The Panthers went 0-4-1 during their five-game stretch vs. 2013 playoff teams. The past two weeks they’ve lost to bad teams in Atlanta and Minnesota. Rivera’s 0-5 record after bye weeks, including last year’s playoff loss to San Francisco, is more than a little disconcerting. His job should be safe after he signed a three-year extension in January, but postseason staff changes could be coming.